How does silence sound? If there is silence there is no sound. There’s nothing to hear.
While this may be true of physical silence, when it comes to the mind silence is not quite what it seems. Perhaps, like me, you have noticed when the thinking mind is quiet—when you are deep in meditation, for example—a faint background sound. It’s hard to describe, but for me it’s a bit like a quiet “shhhh” or white noise, or like the sound of distant crickets.
When I first started noticing it I wondered what it was: Was there something wrong? What would happen if it got worse? Or maybe it was just tinnitus?
But tinnitus is different. It is usually more like a ringing in the ears, which may at times dominate over other experiences. And it can be quite uncomfortable, leading some to seek professional help. The sound I am describing isn’t in the ears so much as in my mind. Moreover, it isn’t at all unpleasant; quite the opposite, it’s kind of comforting.
I also wondered if perhaps it was just background neural activity seeping into consciousness? Who knows? Whatever it was, I decided not to worry and just let it be.
Over time, I began to pay more attention to it, to actively listen to it. And I discovered something interesting. Listening to it helped my mind settle down further. I became aware of an underlying stillness behind the sound. It was like a beacon drawing my attention away from thoughts and other mental phenomena towards the stillness that so many meditation practices advocate.
I came to realize that I wasn’t alone in my approach. In his book The Sound of Silence, the Buddhist teacher Ajahn Sumedho describes how his students would often ask about this sound they heard in meditation. His response, I was pleased to learn, was similar to my discovery: just listen to it. In the same way one might be mindful of the breath, some body sensation or feeling, simply let the attention rest in the sound.
I then discovered that listening to the sound like this is regarded in some yoga schools as the highest form of meditation, called Nadanusandhana (“attending to the sound”). These traditions describe it as “the unstruck sound”—meaning that is not caused by anything, but is simply present within the mind. They claim it is experienced by advanced practitioners of yoga and meditation, and that listening to it can deepen one’s practice, and lead to the appreciation of subtle variations and nuances in the sound.
As well as being refered to as the unstruck sound, it is sometimes called the astral sound, the eternal sound, the primordial sound, the unborn sound, or the soundless sound. All of which resonated with my own experience.
Then I wondered: Could this be the sound of OM refered to by Indian teachings? It doesn’t sound like the OM that people chant today—a deep resonant humming of OM. But maybe that is the best representation of it the human voice can make. These teachings likewise describe OM as the primorial sound, eternal and ever-present, the first vibration coming out of stillness—which again matched my own experience. Maybe these ancient seers were tuning into the same unstruck sound, but as often happens with spiritual teachings as they get handed down, the original meaning is lost and the teachings come to be understood in more material terms.
This also suggests that meditation on the sound of OM may not be about repeating the human-made sound of OM as a mantra, but simply letting the attention relax and rest in the sound of silence. Not trying to make anything happen, or get anywhere, but just noticing the sound, however it appears. Then you may well find, as I did, that it becomes like a beacon emanating from the stillness, drawing you home.
And if you’ve no idea what I am talking about, don’t worry, it is not that common an experience. Nevertheless, at times when your mind is quiet, pause and let your attention be drawn toward the stillness, and perhaps you will have a glimpse of that ever-present quality these teachings are describing.